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UN chief calls for global risk management of AI, warns of ‘serious unintended consequences’

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UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addresses the assembly during the World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting in Davos on January 17, 2024. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP) (Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)

Fabrice Coffrini | Afp | Getty Images

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres on Wednesday called on political and business leaders to prioritize a global strategy dealing with the twin threats of artificial intelligence and the climate crisis.

In a special address at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Guterres warned that the rapid development of AI could result in “serious unintended consequences.”

“It’s good to be back and see Davos highlighting the global crisis in trust,” Guterres said in his opening remarks.

“I believe this crisis is the direct result of a paradox facing our world. In the face of [a] series of existential threats, posed by runaway climate chaos and the runaway development of artificial intelligence without guardrails, we seem powerless to act together,” he added.

“Rebuilding Trust” is the overarching theme of the annual WEF meeting. WEF says this year’s Davos program embodies a “back to basics” spirit of open and constructive dialogue between policymakers, business leaders and civil society, with AI emerging as a major topic of discussion.

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Advocates of AI say the technology can be harnessed to benefit humanity in several ways, including fast-tracking patient diagnoses, helping to model climate change and fighting cyberattacks.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella on Tuesday said that he believes there is a need for global coordination on AI and for agreement on a set of standards and appropriate guardrails for the technology.

The U.S. tech giant is a major player in the race to develop AI, pouring billions of dollars into OpenAI, the firm behind the popular chatbot ChatGPT.

“Every new interaction of generative AI increases the risk of serious unintended consequences. The technology has enormous potential for sustainable development, but as the International Monetary Fund has just warned us, it is very likely it will worsen inequality in the world,” Guterres said.

The IMF said in a report out Sunday that nearly 40% of jobs across the world could be affected by the rise of AI. It also warned that the potential impact of the technology on the global labor market is likely to worsen overall inequality in most cases.

“Some powerful tech companies are already pursuing profits with a clear disregard for human rights, personal privacy and social impact. This is no secret,” Guterres said, without naming any specific firms.

“These two issues, climate and AI, are exhaustively discussed by governments, by the media and by leaders here in Davos. And yet, we have not an effective global strategy to deal with either,” he said.

“The reason is simple, geopolitical divides are preventing us from coming together around global solutions for global challenges. Little wonder that people everywhere are losing face in governments, institutions and financial and economic systems.”

— CNBC’s Ryan Browne contributed to this report.

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